The men who built the Chicago Cubs into World Series champions still believe in the core of this team – this sub-.500-at-the-All-Star-break, back-to-giving-poor-fans-angina team – and in the possibility of 2017 serving as something other than a long, nauseating hangover from a party that was totally worth it. They’re also not myopic enough to see salvaging this season as some kind of mandate. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, there is 2018 and 2019 and 2020.
It’s no coincidence Jose Quintana’s contract runs through that last season – and let’s be clear: It wasn’t just Jose Quintana the Cubs acquired for four prospects Thursday in a deal that signaled the official start of deadline season in Major League Baseball. It was also his contract, which is so fundamentally part of the equation that one wouldn’t be wrong to anthropomorphize it and call this a six-man deal.
Quintana, it should be noted, is a very good pitcher, almost sneakily so, like a slightly better version of the man he replaced in the Chicago White Sox rotation, Mark Buehrle. Quintana always throws 200-plus innings. His ERA always starts with the number three. He is not Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner. He is undoubtedly in that next echelon of left-handed starters, though, and it’s part of the reason the Cubs were willing to sacrifice monster outfielder Eloy Jimenez and dynamic starter Dylan Cease as part of the package to get him.
Quintana’s Contract – it deserves that capital C – is the rest of the reason. It is the Chris Sale of contracts, which is a tad ironic since Sale’s Contract is the Clayton Kershaw of contracts. Quintana is owed around $3.2 million the rest of this season, $8.85 million next season and $10.5 million for each of the two after that, should the Cubs pick up the options for those years. The Arizona Diamondbacks pay Zack Greinke more for a single season than the Cubs will for 3½ of Quintana.
Money matters to the Cubs, as they juggle four balls simultaneously: fighting the rising cost of soon-to-be-arbitration-eligible players, staying flexible enough to pounce in free agency, remaining under the luxury-tax threshold and fielding a winning team. That last part has been the most elusive this season, and Quintana could go a long way to helping resuscitate this incarnation of the Cubs.
One year after their starting pitchers led baseball with a 2.96 ERA, practically the same group is getting lit up to the tune of a 4.66 ERA, good for 17th in the game. Fastball velocities down, command off, they look like a bootleg version of themselves. Quintana makes the Cubs’ rotation better, yes, but one starter alone cannot solve problems that have festered going on four months.
They go beyond the tangible. To call the Cubs’ clubhouse dynamics a problem would be incorrect. Their inability to snap out of this string of mediocrity, though, has prompted a number of people within the organization to examine what is preventing a team as talented as the Cubs are from looking even the slightest bit like the 2016 version of themselves. And each person came back to some form of a similar point: Nobody in the current group has struck a motivational chord as acute as the one that drove the Cubs last season.
Coming into 2016, the Cubs were angry. Getting swept in the NLCS by the New York Mets stung. Compound that with the 108-year drought, and they were dogs chasing a rabbit that ran them right to a trophy. The 2017 Cubs are not complacent; they are, multiple people on the team opined recently, still trying to figure out who will serve as their motivational figure, the person around whom they can rally, who has the interpersonal intelligence to take a clubhouse’s temperature and the gravitas to deliver the right message at the right time.
Most believed it would be Kyle Schwarber, and were he not going through struggles that led to his demotion to Triple-A and have consumed his first half, this might be moot. The Quintana trade also reinforces just how deep the Cubs believe in Schwarber: With Jason Heyward occupying right field and Anthony Rizzo at first base, the Cubs had just one spot for Schwarber or Jimenez. They chose Schwarber.
Jimenez, 20, is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound man-child. His power is emerging, and if ever it blossoms in full, it will be like Japan in April. One scout who saw Jimenez last season thinks he’ll win a batting title some day, too. Between him and Cease, a 21-year-old whose fastball-curveball combination has confounded Class A hitters all season, the White Sox didn’t quite repeat their return in the Sale trade but did plenty well.
The White Sox now have the best farm system in baseball. This is inarguable. It’s not just Jimenez and Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, three of the top 10 or 15 prospects in the game. Their depth is frightening. It’s fair to say Dane Dunning, a right-handed pitcher acquired in the Adam Eaton deal, is somewhere in the vicinity of their 12th-best prospect. It’s also fair to say Dunning would be the No. 1 prospect in a good five to seven other organizations.
That’s how deep this White Sox system now runs. It’s Jimenez and Moncada and Kopech and the Cuban outfielder Luis Robert, on whom they spent more than $50 million. It’s Cease and Dunning and Lucas Giolito and Carson Fulmer and Reynaldo Lopez and Alec Hansen, all potentially dynamic arms, each part of a surplus for the inevitability of some failing. It’s Zack Collins and Jake Burger, their last two first-round picks, neither of whom will win the cover of Men’s Fitness anytime soon, both of whom resemble the Cubs’ thinking with Schwarber: If he can rake, we’ll find a place for him to play.
Most striking in this trade wasn’t the fact that it was the first of any significance in a quarter century between the crosstown teams. It was how the White Sox are priming themselves to take back the city right around the time the Cubs face a gauntlet of difficult decisions. Quintana’s contract runs through 2020. Rizzo, Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Mike Montgomery all are set to hit free agency after 2021. By then, Moncada will be well-established, Jimenez settling into stardom and the White Sox free to have supplemented that jab of cheap players with a righteous hook of free agent stars.
Until then, this is the Cubs’ town, and Jose Quintana is going to look good on the North Side. The best franchises are the ones that don’t get caught up in yesterday or today or tomorrow but balance them with a year and two years and three years from now. The Cubs are Bryant and Rizzo and Quintana. They are also Ian Happ and Adbert Alzolay and whoever else they draft and sign and develop, as they’ve done so well.
In July, it’s easy to get drunk on the idea of the next two months. The Cubs knew better than to do that. A months-long hangover has been rough enough.
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